Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Strike Survival TV Club: Cupid, "A Truly Fractured Fairy Tale"

Spoilers for "Cupid" episode four, "A Truly Fractured Fairy Tale," coming up just as soon as I study some surveillance footage...

Even great TV shows aren't great every single week. While "A Truly Fractured Fairy Tale" isn't really a bad episode of "Cupid," there's a part of me that just wants to skip over it and move straight to talking about "First Loves" and then "Meat Market" (two of the series' highlights). Still, I resolved to talk about each and every episode, so talk about each and every episode we shall.

"Fairy Tale" does some interesting things -- it's the first time Trevor fails to make a love connection, the first time Claire is unequivocally right and Trevor's absolutely wrong, and I really liked the design of the secret admirer's fairy tale gifts -- but overall it doesn't quite come together.

Sooner or later, the show needed to do an episode where Trevor's metaphorical arrow missed its target, both to keep things unpredictable and to give Claire some credibility when she clashes with him in the future. The problem, I think, is that the Couple of the Week and their dilemma aren't that interesting.

Valerie (Kate Hodge) is a regular at Claire's singles support group, and in the middle of a slow session admits to having a crush on the model in a Marlboro Man-style billboard across the street from her office window. Trevor wants to fix her up with her dream man, model/teacher Scott (Robert Mailhouse), but Claire warns that the reality of the man will never live up to the fantasy of the billboard...

...which is exactly what happens, with a minimum of twists and turns. Turns out Scott's not the rugged nature lover he plays in the ad -- "The closest I get to the outdoors is a John Denver album" -- and despite Trevor's attempt to make him embrace his inner outdoorsman, including a horseback riding date where he makes an impromptu save of Valerie when her horse goes wild, it's not for him. Claire helps Valerie realize the attraction has less to do with the man than the way he represents the Montana home she left behind, and so Valerie decides to return to the country, single but more fulfilled.

It's a really straightforward story, and one where Claire's initial concern is so obvious that I can't imagine anyone but the most hardcore of Cupidians seeing that she has a point and Trevor is setting these two up for failure. No real stakes -- the relationship doesn't work out, but neither party seems that hurt by it -- and none of those magical moments that the series does so well. In an episode whose chief theme is the difference between the fantasy and the reality, this story had too much of the latter and almost none of the former. That may have been the point, but it's not that interesting to watch.

The other story, in which a secret admirer gives Claire one lavish fairy tale-inspired present after another, is almost all fantasy. In many ways, it's more whimsical than the song-and-dance plot from "Heaven... He's in Heaven," complete with David Johansen returning as Zeus the Bum to provide fairy tale-style narration. (In the end, we find out that he's simply reading from Claire's latest column, a payoff that doesn't quite work; in retrospect, none of what Zeus reads aloud sounds like the sort of thing I could imagine Claire writing in that context, even having just had this strange experience.)

Like I said above, I really dug the creation of the various gifts: a spinning wheel (Rumpelstiltskin), the golden egg (Jack and the Beanstalk?), the frog (Frog Prince), etc. And, as we discover at the end of the episode, Trevor slipped a letter P scrabble tile into Claire's couch cushions to keep her from sleeping on it (Princess and the P? Get it?).

The actual resolution to the story is fairly slight -- the gifts were intended for a woman who used to live in this apartment (I'm assuming she was the previous tenant and not Claire's ex-roommate, or else the guy would know Claire), and after resisting the concept of fairy tale love all episode, Claire gives the guy his dream woman's contact info -- but the interesting part to me is how Trevor responds to all of this. Even though he's normally pro-fantasy and Claire is anti, he's the one trying to convince her that these presents are coming from a stalker. ("To paraphrase a friend of mine, you should beware freaks bearing gifts.") Obviously, the sexual tension between the two of them is a key part of the series, but this is the first time -- and definitely not the last -- that we've seen Trevor get just a wee bit jealous about the attention Claire's getting from another man.

Before we move on to the bullet points, it's time for another installment of Rob Remembers, where "Cupid" creator Rob Thomas (who, before the writers strike began, was working on a an updated version of the series for ABC, which will hopefully still get made whenever the strike ends) shares some behind-the-scenes thoughts on how these episodes came together:
"A Truly Fractured Fairy Tale" was written by a freelance writer. The Writers Guild requires that two scripts a year are farmed out to writers not on staff. What typically happens in these situations is that the episode is largely re-written by the showrunners. In this particular case, I know that Reno and Osborne did a pretty extensive pass on the script.

Interestingly, the new Cupid pilot I'm writing, posits the same question as this particular episode of Cupid. Can we fall in love with someone who we've barely met? In the new pilot, Trevor's answer is absolutely yes. Claire, naturally, has grave doubts.

I was never fully invested in the notion of this Zeus character. I think Ron and Jeff had an idea for where they wanted to take the character, but once I was handed the reigns of the show, we never saw him again. Zeus is a Greek god. Cupid is a Roman god. Technically, the character should've been called "Jupiter."

The network was never thrilled with episodes in which the two anthological characters didn't get together, but I thought it was important to include these episodes from time to time, so that the audience couldn't predict every outcome. It was also important to me that Claire was "right" her fair share of the time.

I believe it was also supposed to be our fifth episodes, but it got pushed up by one episode, because of production complications on "First Loves" which was actually written before it.
Some other thoughts on "A Truly Fractured Fairy Tale":

-Though Trevor takes a bit of a backseat to Claire in this one, he has the usual choice one-liners. My favorites: when Claire worries that Scott might hurt Valerie, Trevor says, "He promised no more enslaving women and sticking them in foreign ports," and, after an especially wordy Claire line, "Is it true what you can tell about a woman by the length of her sentences?"

-Another thing not helping the episode is a particularly extraneous Champ story where he gives up his artistic integrity for a lucrative pants modeling contract, only to be betrayed in the end when the ad execs decide to build the campaign around a hot blonde instead of him. Outside of him trying to defend commercials as "like 60-second plays" and saying of the Maytag repair man, "Tell me he doesn't evoke a Samuel Beckett-like pathos," it's another strained attempt to give the third castmember something to do. Things improve significantly, Champ-wise, starting with the next episode, "First Loves."

-I was in my early 20s when this show was on the air, and it makes me irrationally happy to hear songs that I was addicted to at the time -- in this case, Barenaked Ladies' "One Week" over the montage of Trevor and Champ visiting modeling cattle calls looking for Scott.

-A random story about Robert Mailhouse that's unconnected to the episode but always amuses me: a while back, he was on an NBC midseason replacement sitcom called "Battery Park," an attempt at a 21st century "Barney Miller." The critics were so unenthusiastic about the show that its press tour session was filled with awkward silences as people struggled to come up with questions to ask. Finally, one critic started thumbing through the actors' bios and noticed that Mailhouse played drums in Keanu Reeves' band, Dogstar, and proceeded to ask, like, six or seven questions in a row about what it was like to be in Dogstar. After each answer, the critic paused, hoping someone else in the audience had something to ask, and when no one did, he plowed forward. It wasn't a Rule of Jay moment (named in honor of a critic who, if he asks seven or more questions at a session, guarantees the show will fail), since Jay wasn't there, but as the Dogstar questions kept coming, you could see on the faces of Mailhouse and his co-stars that they knew they were in trouble.

-An odd artistic choice at the end of this one, as the theme song plays over Claire journeying out into the park to blow bubbles. I've seen shows discover their theme song after it plays well in an early episode -- "California" in "The O.C." pilot, or "Angela's Theme" in the second episode of "Taxi" -- but I'm assuming they already had The Pretenders' "Human" lined up as their theme by the time a fourth (or in this case fifth) episode was being produced.

Coming up on Friday: "First Loves," featuring Lisa Loeb, a limo and other non-alliterative things. You can see it here, here, here, here and here.

What did everybody else think?

13 comments:

Stef said...

Yay, first comment!

Although overall this episode was very sad, I'm glad that they showed one where the couple does not live happily ever after. That helps ground a fantasy show in a bit of reality - sometimes Cupid misses his mark.

I agree that the Champ storyline was a little weak, but it too fit in the theme of fantasy vs. reality, as he got carried away thinking about how this Khaki Nation (ha!) campaign was going to catapult him to fame and riches. Alas, reality bites a little harder.

jana said...

Alan,
I don't have a comment about this particular episode, per se, but I'm so happy you're doing this series. I absolutely loved this show when it was on and didn't know anyone who watched it. It's so fun to go back and watch and relive when I really fell in love with Jeremy Piven! It's a shame the truly wonderful shows like Cupid get yanked so that we're somehow left with the drivel.

Byron said...

How can people be saying Cupid missed his mark? Because she followed his advice and took a chance, she ended up happier. Isn't that really what Trevor is pushing for every episode? Claire wasn't wrong, but Trevor started the woman down the path. It was more an example of how the two philosophies work together than a time when Clair "beat" Trevor.

I agree that there's something off about this episode, but it definitely has its moments.

Alan Sepinwall said...

How can people be saying Cupid missed his mark? Because she followed his advice and took a chance, she ended up happier. Isn't that really what Trevor is pushing for every episode?

Interesting point. However, while I'm sure Trevor isn't unhappy that Valerie is now happy, his goal is to get people together and move those buttons to the other end of the string, and he didn't accomplish that this time. Everything Claire predicted with these two came true.

R.A. Porter said...

Coincidentally, last night TheWife and I popped in SportsNight. So as I was watching this episode this morning, every time Robert Mailhouse spoke, I heard the voice of the network.

I think the writers would have been better served skipping the reveal that Zeus/the bum was reading the paper and left him as an immaterial narrator, but I guess they wanted to keep the ambiguity about whether he's a god or not. I did appreciate the subtle reveal that Trevor had been the one to leave the Scrabble tile.

All in all, this episode's a meh. Pretty elaborate action sequence for a freelance episode, though.

filmcricket said...

every time Robert Mailhouse spoke, I heard the voice of the network.

Hee hee, me too. It was nice to see him as a good guy.

Because I didn't say it last week, thanks to Rob Thomas for sharing his memories of these episodes. Also, two words for the new show: Donald Faison. Seriously.

I didn't like the continuing theme of "Claire's life is lacking because she's focused on her career" here and I agree that the narration didn't sound like anything she would have written, but Marshall was charming as Claire is increasingly won over by the mysterious gifts.

One thing I noticed about the "One Week" sequence is how much faster TV shows have become even just in the last decade. Trevor and Champ really only hit two agencies before finding Scott. I think in most shows now a montage set to an up-tempo piece of music like that would have them coming in and out of a lot more places.

Maryann said...

I agree that this episode just didn't gel, and it wasn't because the couple didn't get together -- Claire does need to be right sometimes so we can keep questioning Trevor.

It's great to have Rob's thoughts on the episodes -- thanks to both Rob and Alan for that.

Also, I'm starting to feel the Donald Faison In The New Version love.

Anonymous said...

Highlight of "Meat Market" episode to come .. Kate Walsh.

daveawayfromhome said...

Trevor didnt get his match, but he was right about giving it a shot. No, it didnt work out (and I think it would be dull if every match had, isnt that the point of denying him his magic arrow?), but neither was anyone hurt. In the end, it was given the old college try and now it's time to move on, just like real dating.

Sara Ann said...

The narration in this episode bugged me way before we found out it was the Zeus bum reading "Claire's article." Why tell us Claire feels like a pretty, pretty princess when we can clearly see her clutching a fairy tale gift and smile a special smile to herself? Usually this show struck a nice balance between romantic optimism and wry cynicism, but that narration was way too twee.

Imdb only gives Rob Thomas as the writer. I wonder who actually wrote it, and what he or she is doing now (I mean, right now, probably picketing - but, y'know, when not striking.)

bertas said...

Oh Cupid, I cant believe that I was not the only one who actually watched the show :)
I did love it and then years later I got addicted to Veronica Mars... and then I find out Rob Thomas was behind both shows... tsss :) But I did love it...and I agree there are better alternatives then watching Who wants to marry a farmer or Who wants to marry a US citizen... for crying out loud!
Sorry :) Anyhow Alan great idea :)

olucy said...

Random thoughts:

Definitely not my favorite episode, mostly because of the narration. I agree, it’s not the style in which Claire would write, especially about herself with regards to being the fair princess. She’s Claire, for crying out loud, not Carrie Bradshaw.

I’m currently reading Jeff Stepakoff’s book Billion-Dollar Kiss, about writing for TV*, and it’s fascinating. This book was my first inkling that the WGA requires every show to dole out two scripts per year to freelancers, so I think that has a lot to do with this not matching the tone of the rest of the season. At the time, I’m sure they didn’t think that their script would be rewatched in a completely different medium and scrutinzed in print by a limitless audience. Ah…progress.

Sooner or later, the show needed to do an episode where Trevor's metaphorical arrow missed its target, both to keep things unpredictable and to give Claire some credibility when she clashes with him in the future.

I agree, things need to be kept unpredictable. Trevor’s “win record” shouldn’t equal Perry Mason’s or the show will lose not only credibility, but interest. I agree with the poster who thought Trevor was right to urge them to try, and it’s OK that it’s not clear whether this is due to his utter hopefulness that anything can happen in love or utter desperation to make another match that gets him closer to home. But I’m glad that Trevor doesn’t bat a thousand – not only does Claire need to be right sometimes, but we need to remember that Trevor’s botched scorecard is the reason he dwells among us again.

It's a really straightforward story, and one where Claire's initial concern is so obvious that I can't imagine anyone but the most hardcore of Cupidians seeing that she has a point and Trevor is setting these two up for failure.

I’m not convinced that the story is that straightforward. Of course, in the cold light of day, Claire is right. But I think that all three stories hinge on that irrational hope that we all have harbored from time to time that our story might be different. We know in our heart of hearts that things don’t really work out this way, but we want to be the one to break the odds—to tell that incredible story at cocktail parties about how Things.Worked.Out. Despite all her clinical training, Claire experienced it more and more as she brought in every doorstep gift. But she ended up kissing a frog for naught. Champ experienced it when he convinced himself that selling out his art was going to pay off, but he ended up getting screwed by the agency. And The Couple of the Week wanted to believe it, at least for awhile, but it didn’t.work.out. In the Pilot, didn’t someone say that our problem with relationships is that we believe the movies we watched growing up? This is the same thing.

Interestingly, the new Cupid pilot I'm writing, posits the same question as this particular episode of Cupid. Can we fall in love with someone who we've barely met? In the new pilot, Trevor's answer is absolutely yes. Claire, naturally, has grave doubts.

Yes, it’s an interesting premise, and worth asking. It’s not the same as this ep, however. Claire didn’t think the couple wouldn’t work out because they had just met and barely knew each other. She felt it wouldn’t work out because one member of the pair had concocted a fantasy around the other person and he couldn’t possibly live up to it. They’re two separate issues, but both worthy in their own right.

*This is a great behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to write for television. I’d recommend it even if you’re only interested in how TV works and you’re not necessarily interested in writing for TV. Since this blog attracts people of above-average intelligence and it looks like we all might have more leisure time in the near future, I’d recommend it as a good read.

shelbel said...

If there's one underlying theme to Trevor's preaching, it's "put yourself out there--take a chance." So yeah, Valerie didn't get swept off into the sunset, but she also confronted her fantasy and made a positive step to improve her life by moving back home, instead of daydreaming about Mr. Perfect and holding herself back from any kind of progress b/c her fantasy was too easy to fall back on if she left it untouched. Yeah, Trevor didn't score a point towards his goal here, but he truly helped Val. And isn't he on Earth to empathize with mortals and treat them less like game pieces for his scorecard? It seems like this is a step in his growth process as well.